The Velvet Underground And Nico

The Velvet Underground

Polygram Records, 1967

REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/26/2014

It all starts innocently enough. The lead-in tune “Sunday Morning” gently lulls the listener straight into their gothic lair. And that’s when things get really gritty and interesting. Singer Lou Reed suddenly transforms himself into the love child of Bob Dylan and Dracula’s daughter on the second cut “Waiting For My Man.” The sarcastic sneer that has long since become his trademark is right there to catch you off-guard, further disarming you with a relentless barrage of guitar grinding away up front and center. When it comes to the decaying streets of New York City in the 1960s, you can only imagine who and what Reed must be singing about.

Psychedelic in the absolute best sense of the word, this debut album left a lot of jaws dragging on the dirty, sticky floor when it was first released in 1967. Nobody, not even the critics at the time, quite knew what to do with this drony, drugged out quintet. This was the antithesis of the happy, peace-loving beatniks that were all the rage in the late ‘60s. No, you can keep the flowers and paisley patterns far, far away in sunny California, where it rightfully belongs (though Woodstock was still to come). This was NEW YORK CITY. Granted, only someone with the twisted foresight like Andy Warhol could find the glamour in the degradation and call it art. But that’s exactly who it would take to bring this new, deliberately abrasive sound to the masses.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The avant garde has always been something that only the fringe of society could fully appreciate. Mainstream conformists would merely raise an eyebrow, tsk tsk and walk away. They didn’t get it, didn’t want to get it and would never get it. But the Velvet Underground would soldier on, undeterred. Ironically, it would be Lou Reed who would take the band in a more commercial direction, which of course would lose Warhol, the ever-detached beauty Nico and even the genius John Cale in the process. After the electric shock of this, their first and best album, however, all of his subsequent efforts would prove futile. This one was the killer. It both found its audience, while alienating virtually everyone else. Second chances would only come when Lou opted out for a solo career. By 1972, more people warmed up to the idea about hearing what it must have been like hanging out with the Warhol crowd. So, he tried once more to capture those times and colorful characters in his huge hit “Walk On The Wild Side,” a fitting coda.

Known as the banana album (because of its ingenious peelable cover painting by producer Warhol), The Velvet Underground And Nico was absolutely fearless when it came to leaving in the ear piercing sound of feedback and controversially graphic depictions of heroin use. It’s not for the faint of heart, but that’s what’s so exciting about it. Shouldn’t that be what new music does? Push the envelope and open up unexplored avenues in both sound and lyrical content? If making a statement was their intent, mission accomplished. It wasn’t all bombast either, which makes Nico the essential ingredient that separates this album from others in the Velvet catalog. Her ballads “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Femme Fatale” are simply gorgeous. They provide the perfect counterbalance to the rough stuff like the intensely creative high point “Venus In Furs” and methamphetamine fueled “Run Run Run.” They really should have kept Nico in the fold. If anything, that was their one HUGE mistake made going forward.

And what about that sound of breaking glass at the start of the overlong jam that is “European Son?” That’s basically the sound of future alternative artists’ and critics’ minds – like mine – being BLOWN. I rate this one A for Astonishing.

Rating: A

User Rating: A


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